Whanganui rugby: No more quick goodbyes for Craig Clare

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Craig Clare playing for Whanganui in 2018. Photo/Merrilyn George

It was a bit of a surreal feeling for a certain director of Whanganui Rabobank as he left the office to reunite with his wife and two children on Tuesday evening.

“I’m driving home, and you see the lights on at Cooks [Gardens]”, said Craig Clare of the Steelform Whanganui 2022 team training session.

“Usually I shoot at home, say hello to the kids, then I shoot.”

For the first time in two decades and 120 top games, other than a three-year gap with a broken leg that he focused on rehabilitation, we are now at the end of July and Clare no longer has rugby for the season.

The 37-year-old told current Whanganui manager Jason Hamlin while they were together at the NZ Heartland XV camp in December that he was calling time off for his outstanding first class (representation) career.

“I’m pretty happy. I did everything I could,” Clare said.

“I’m a pretty proud person, and as you get older, the mental side – just seeing that you’re a little less every year – it’s quite difficult.

“You’re a bit fed up, mentally, even though you’re physically [still capable].

“It’s been about 20 years now. I’ve spoken to a lot of people [about] when you think it’s the right time to throw it away.

“When you know, you know.

“There is no better way to finish, representing your country. That is always close to my heart.

Craig Clare playing for Otago in the NPC in 2006. Photo/NZPA
Craig Clare playing for Otago in the NPC in 2006. Photo/NZPA

“It was a New Zealand team I would love to play for – to get the chance at NZ Heartland – I was proud as a punch.”

Clare served as Heartland XV vice-captain against NZ Barbarians in December, which was a full circle moment for him.

In 2004, as a young fullback with 15 games for Manawatu, Clare was selected for the NZ Divisional XV – the precursor to Heartland – but a knee injury kept him out, heading to Otago the following season.

Clare would play 17 games for Otago over the next two years, including the highlight of his career qualifying for the 2005 Premier League final after beating derby rivals Canterbury in the semi-finals, although the title proved a bridge too far with a 39-11 final loss to Auckland.

“At the time, playing the NPC, the All Blacks were actually playing. Week after week you would see a few of them.

“But Canterbury, they had 14, past or present.”

Clare will always be proud to have fought alongside men like Nick Evans, Anton Oliver, James Ryan, Josh Blackie and Kees Meeuws to topple Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Reuben Thorne.

After getting noticed for Universities New Zealand, NZ Under 21s, Manawatu and now Otago, Clare was given a 2007 Highlanders contract – playing four games until life took a different turn with his devastating fracture of the leg against the Blues.

Returning to rugby in 2010, Clare was back with her beloved Manawatu – the same team her father played for – and once again there was the chance of winning a title in the Championship Cup final ITM 2011.

“We were all locals, we played together a lot in high school.

“Good friends with Aaron Cruden and Aaron Smith and coached by Dave Rennie – played some good expansive rugby for the battlers.”

However, Hawke’s Bay spoiled the party by winning 35-30 at Palmerston North.

Clare would do another season with Manawatu, 44 caps in all, before going the nomadic rugby route – first with Rugby Viadana 1970 club in Italy, then he and his future wife packed their bags for Krasny Yar in Russia.

“I was really out of my comfort zone going there.

“That was one of the most important points – I had to grow up.

“Six Kiwis in the team to start. We all spent time together, a small New Zealand community.”

After an eight-game stint at home with Bay of Plenty in 2015, Clare moved to Whanganui, looking to focus more on banking work instead of professional football.

But eventually, after the heartbreak, the Championships came – as he joined the 2016 ‘Heartland Invincibles’ and scored a try while earning the winning conversion as Whanganui retained the Meads Cup against Buller 20-18 over Cooks Gardens.

“You can’t refuse to win championships, even at club level, no matter what you have to do.

“That fact that we had two in a row [with me playing] and part of a three rounds.

“That hat-trick was one of the great comeback seasons.”

Whanganui came from a distant fourth in 2017 to upset South Canterbury (29-24) and Horowhenua-Kapiti (30-14) in back-to-back playoffs to retain their Meads crown.

Clare was selected in the NZ Heartland XV every year from 2017 to 21 minus 2020 when Covid prevented a match, and was nominated for Heartland Player of the Year in 2018.

Highlights included the game at Eden Park against the full Samoa Test squad en route to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Although another Meads Cup fell woefully out of reach in 2018-19, Clare was injured at the start of 2019, he was content to end his 40-game Whanganui career with the 2021 Lochore Cup, won at home against former rivals North Otago 22-16.

Clare will fondly remember playing alongside Peter Rowe, Lindsay Horrocks, Roman Tutauha and Jamie Hughes – “the first guys I would choose to go to war with”.

And of course there was club representative and teammate Angus Middleton.

“I’ve never seen a guy take so many hits in a game and go on.”

He also thanks Hamlin, former coach Jason Caskey and longtime manager Chris Back for all their help.

But the greatest inspirations can still be found at home – Clare thanking his wife, children and proud parents, as he transitions into a new future.

“They are in every game I play. I always talk to the old man before every game.

“I would love to get up in the stands and watch the boys play, and maybe catch up after the game for a beer.”

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